RICHMOMD, Va. (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden continued a busy political pace Saturday, appearing with Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial candidate at the swing state's premier party fundraiser and ridiculing this fall's conservative Republican statewide ticket as extreme captives of tea party ideology.
Biden brought about 1,000 Democrats to their feet repeatedly at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner barely four months ahead of the nation's only competitive governor's race. His appearances at state fundraisers haved evoked speculation that he is laying his footing for a 2016 presidential bid.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we stand for equal rights and women's rights," Biden said. "With virtually zero support from the Republicans, the president and I have moved the country from the worst recession since the Great Depression to 38 months of private-sector growth."
With Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe at his side, Biden took aim at McAuliffe's opponent, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who won the GOP nomination with strong tea party support and his socially conservative ticket mates.
"There is so much they stand for that is so at odds with the value set of Virginians," Biden said.
The vice president warned that a GOP victory in Virginia would only galvanize the tea party's grip on the GOP in Congress, where he said even longtime moderate Republicans are fearful of a primary challenge if they don't do the tea party's bidding.
"They are so afraid of a challenge by the tea party that they vote against what is the right vote. Imagine what they will do to Barack and me if Terry McAuliffe loses," he said.
A McAuliffe victory, he said, would "send a strong signal to Republicans across America that there's no reason to be afraid of these extreme guys."
Before speaking to activists who paid $175 or more per ticket, Biden joined McAuliffe, a longtime confidante of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in surprising patrons at a Richmond restaurant, shaking hands before wolfing down two plates of fried whiting.
Among other campaign events this season, Biden aided Democratic Rep. Ed Markey in a Massachusetts special election — Markey won, thus keeping Secretary of State John Kerry's old seat in Democratic hands — and held a series of closed-door "donor-maintenance" events in Washington.
Sen. Tim Kaine, elected on the same Virginia ballot as President Barack Obama last fall, said it's too early for Democrats to take sides in a potential nomination contest between Biden and Hillary Clinton, but he counseled both to try pragmatism over progressive partisanship.
"I think the Virginia Democratic success model is, we'll let the other guys be the ideology people and we will be the work-together, compromise, make-things-happen party. That's been the model that has allowed Dems to win," said Kaine, like McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.
In speeches warming up the crowd, Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner congratulated gay-rights activists for the ruling that cleared the way for same-sex marriages in 13 states but not in Virginia, where a 7-year-old amendment to the state Constitution prohibits it. And both hailed the immigration reform bill that they supported — it now faces an uncertain future in a conservative Republican-led House.
The Cuccinelli campaign joined the Virginia GOP in using Biden's visit as an occasion to attack the ticket for Obama's clean-energy initiative, warning that it will devastate Virginia's struggling coal industry and drive up utility bills.
"With no economic plan or message to tout, Vice President Biden and Terry McAuliffe doubled down on an empty strategy of division and false attacks tonight," the campaign said in a statement that referred to the "Obama/Biden/McAuliffe War On Coal" and government-run healthcare as "harmful to job growth and economic opportunity in Virginia."
State GOP Chairman Pat Mullins called it "the most anti-coal slate of candidates ever fielded in the history of Virginia," a distinction intended to lock up the rural, rugged but independent southwestern tip of the state for the GOP in a neck-and-neck governor's race.
Republicans weren't alone in protesting Biden's trip. About three dozen environmental activists opposed to construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline stood on a street corner as Biden's motorcade passed, waving placards that read "Say No to Big Oil" and chanting "Hey, Joe, you ought to know, Keystone pipeline's got to go."
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.